Sometimes even the most unrepentant, unapologetic fan of complex avant-prog music might need to relax just a bit, and that's when Calomito are here to provide musical pleasure of a somewhat straightforward variety. The operative phrase here is "just a bit," however -- the Italian quintet's 2011 album, Cane di Schiena (the band's second CD and first for the AltrOck label), is far from an ambient dronefest. No, the many compositional changes avoid predictability here, but overall, Cane di Schiena is a bit like a puzzle assembled from rather simple pieces that nevertheless add up to an overall picture with enough variety to be completely and thoroughly engaging. One might even be tempted to note some post-rock influences: "Parliamone" initially greets the listener with repetitive guitar and bass pluckings flavored with retro synth voicings and touches of violin, but the track is soon peppered with abrupt power chords, stops and starts, and soprano sax interludes -- it's as if post-rockers started one of their patented gradual buildups and decided that sticking with the program would be quite a bore over the long haul. If that sounds random and fragmented, guess again -- Calomito have better compositional acumen than that. Thematic threads run throughout these tracks, and every piece makes perfect sense as a whole. Cane di Schiena also tips away from the "jazz" side of jazz-rock given its relative lack of solos -- guitarist Marco Ravera (who splits the band's compositional duties with bassist/keyboardist Tommaso Rolando) might step into the spotlight occasionally, but he never crams in more notes than necessary and avoids jazz clichés.
Jazzers take note, however: the title track features an understated midsection with exploratory yet well-considered solo work from Ravera bracketed by beautiful, even classically powerful themes in which violinist Filippo Cantarella makes particularly striking contributions, and although "Infraditi" may on occasion suffer from interrupted momentum, Ravera melds improvisation and composition together ingeniously by introducing thematic elements in his solo before they are stated formally by his bandmates. Cantarella brings a Gypsy flavor to the brief "Pappa Irreale" with its heavily accented backbeat and Nicola Magri's clattering percussion, while the themes and guitar tones of "Klez" suggest a John Zorn-ish homage to spaghetti Western or surf movie soundtracks. And on "Antenna," Middle Eastern traditions meet avant-garde post-minimalism in a stunning hybrid -- thorough scoring in no way limits the immediacy of this disc highlight. Throughout, trombonist Nando Magni is utilized primarily for themes and accents, but he contributes solidly to the band's overall texture, harking back to Zorn compatriot Bobby Previte's more abstract Empty Suits (with trombonist Robin Eubanks) during the 1990s. If you'd like a break from the crazed Zappa-esque complexities and loony attitudes of AltrOck bands like miRthkon and Humble Grumble, however audacious and entertaining they may be, you could do no better than Calomito and Cane di Schiena for a nicely measured helping of unpredictability from a somewhat saner musical world. ~ Dave Lynch